Director, Eklektus Inc.
On August 15th we partnered with the St James Theatre here in Wellington to host an evening of interactive theatre: The Affair of the Diamond Necklace.
It was based around an historical event at the Court of Versailles – the scandal surrounding the creation, and theft, of a diamond necklace that in today’s currency would have cost over $100 million. The debacle was the beginning of the end for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.
This event built on a developing interest in interactive theatre, some elements of which are rooted in theRenaissance Fairs that began in the early 1960s in America, and other historical re-enactments, as well as the theatre games movement initiated by Viola Spolin in the 1940s. Even the more immersive of these productions are, however, primarily entertainment, principally because the visitors remain as observers outside the event. As exhibition developers, however, we’re interested in something more – to imbue it with a scholarly backbone, imparting elements of the historical events portrayed.
Museum theory suggests that ‘in order to learn, students need to have an experience; they need to do and see rather than be told’ (Hein G. 1995. The constructivist museum, Journal of Education in Museums 15:21-23.). The demand by visitors for experiential interpretation is growing, and being met by considerably more lateral approaches. Some of these issues will be addressed in the upcoming interpretation conference in Rotorua.
Thus, the roughly 100 guests at The Affair of the Diamond Necklace were instructed to come in costume, and the St James foyer and mezzanine were transformed into the gardens of Versailles 1785, with lights, topiary, fountains and masses of flowers. They had an authentic 18th Century dinner and engaged with the actors solving the mystery, gradually helping uncover clues that would ultimately identify the culprit, through a script artfully written by Morgan Davie. Looking out on the night over the sea of white wigs and brocade was quite a spectacle.
Our goal in producing this interactive event was to contribute to lifelong learning by combining entertainment with imparting information through a combination of living history, improv theatre, food and dance. It was, in essence, an ephemeral exhibition that was made considerably more immersive by the guests being in costume. They were, themselves, part of the ambiance, adding to their own – and each others’ – sense of engagement. The actors were also highly skilled at improvisation, and had done their homework regarding life at the French court, as well as about their characters.
As we’re gearing up to run a season of The Affair of the Diamond Necklace again (for three days this December), and take it to other venues, we’re using research to look critically at what information the first guests came away with. If we were successful, having spent five hours in the milieu (longer than most museum visits, let alone the length of stay in a single exhibition) they should have gained some new knowledge. We will be using a survey to ask a selection of the guests information around the following:
• What impressions they came away with from the evening
• What information they can recall regarding the affair, the characters, or the Ancien regime in general (e.g. learning about clothing, etiquette etc.)
• What they came knowing, and what research and/or preparation they did beforehand, which is also useful in understanding how the event catalysed ancillary learning
Results will help us improve the event, and inform future similar productions.
We will be submitting the results of our study to the Journal of Interpretation Research, but I’m very happy to share salient points beforehand if people contact me directly. See more information on the event.